Satellite tracking humpbacks between Norway and ....?

8th Mar 2017

The origin of the Irish Humpback Whale Photo ID catalogue dates back to a lucky break by Eoin O’ Mahoney in Sept 1999, when he and colleagues filmed a group of 3 humpbacks that were interacting with the MV Seahorse Supporter, while carrying out routine work offshore at the Kinsale Gas fields, Co. Cork. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) managed some years later to extract digital grabs of the tail flukes of two of these individuals (image right HBIRL1), which marked the beginning of the catalogue.

For quite some years our Humpback catalogue remained a pretty slim tome, as in the first decade there were years when we didn't add a single new animal; such was the relative scarcity of humpback whale sightings, say compared to the more abundant fin whale. But that was then and the situation today could hardly be more different. For instance 10 years ago (2006) IWDG validated 16 humpback whale sighting records, this rose to 144 records in 2016. But even more telling is when these sightings are compared with those of fin whales. Historically, we could reliably expect a 10:1 ratio of fin whale to humpback sightings, in favour of fin whales. This statistic has been turned on its head, as in 2016 we received more humpback records (n=144) than those of fin whales (n=106). Clearly, a decade is a long time in marine ecology.

The IWDG’s All-Ireland Cetacean Sighting Scheme has proven itself to be a powerful tool in engaging Citizen Scientists…that’s you; by converting your observations into reliable data that can be used by conservation managers and researchers. One of the major spin offs has been the rapid growth in the Irish Humpback whale catalogue, which has in recent years grown annually by 20-30 animals.  Today this resource currently contains 78 recognisable humpbacks from Irish waters, of which 65 (83%) have fluke images, the remaining 13 animals can be identified by dorsal fins.

On 28th Sept 2007, this story took an inevitable international twist, when Conor Ryan, IWDG was out on a routine whale watch trip with Colin Barnes, Cork Whale Watch in West Cork. They were off Toe Head when a humpback was seen and photographed and the images were put up on the IWDG’s Irish Humpback whale online catalogue. Within 48 hours an excited call from the Netherlands, confirmed this was an animal they had recorded 4 months earlier in May 2007 off the Dutch coast, and even more remarkably it returned two months later to the same area off Ijmuiden on 16th Nov 2007.  A five year gap followed until Norwegian researchers confirmed that this individual (image above, C. Ryan) was photographed near Tromso, inside the Arctic Circle, on 17th Nov 2012 and to prove this wasn’t a fluke (couldn't resist the pun, sorry), they photographed it again in the same region 2 years later on the 11th Nov 2014 in Kaldfjorden. So while we know this individual as HBIRL7, the Norwegians know it as NNHWC-045. So what?

Well, this story and those of other “Irish” humpbacks like #HBIRL9, 23, 25 & 55 that match with Norway, Iceland and Gibraltar, allude to the intriguing journeys undertaken by this species. Clearly, the more we learn of their migration, the better able we are to make informed decisions that can only help their conservation throughout the year, in both their tropical breeding grounds and high latitude feeding areas, and all places in between. It’s no great secret that IWDG are strong believers in Satellite tracking and have in the past sought a research permit to satellite tag fin whales, and nearly succeeded in getting one from the then Minister for the Environment. Alas, for no good reason, this didn’t happen, but we are delighted to see other European nations are out there carrying out this important conservation research.

Following 5-6 years of unprecedented humpback whale activity in Norway’s northern fjords, where large numbers of humpbacks congregate to feast on wintering herring, the Norwegians embarked on an ambitious satellite tagging project in December 2016. It has been really interesting to watch the tracks of these individuals in the past few weeks since the online tracking tool became available. Some of them may be on a southern track towards breeding grounds, despite the lateness in the season. One individual headed southwest for Iceland, while another having crossed the North Sea skirted around Shetland and the Scottish Hebrides and is now off the Rockall Trough area northwest of Donegal.  Another remains further offshore and is almost at the Azores (see map right). Fingers crossed at least one of the tags stays attached long enough to give us a track  all the way to one of the two known breeding areas, or perhaps a previously unknown breeding ground!

 

Whale tracking from Tromsø, Norway to the Caribbean

......."This project is part of the Fram Centre's research program "Effects of climate change on sea and coastal ecosystems in the north"

Now you can follow humpback whales that were tagged with satellite transmitters in winter darkness outside Tromsø. This is the first time anyone has been able to follow the movements in real time of the humpback whales from this area, where for several winter seasons they have followed the herring. After spending about two to three months in the fjords outside Kvaløya and Tromsø there are now several individuals on the way south, travelling at different speeds. The question is; where are they going and will satellite marks fall off before they reach the goal?

Since 2011 nearly 900 humpback whales have been recorded off the coast of Troms by using images of the tail flukes that serve as a "fingerprint" and in the last two years both killer whales and humpback whales have been tagged with satellite transmitters. This project is a collaboration between UiT The  Arctic University of NorwayAkvaplan-niva , IMR , the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and the University of Aarhus (Denmark). The project includes big effort and financial support from the Frams Centre, UiT and Danish research. The project aims to improve knowledge on the migration of humpback whales and killer whales, both during the period they eat herring in the fjords outside Tromsø, and during the period after they leave these areas.

The map below is hosted at https://whaletracking.uit.no/ and is updated once a day, at 07:00....."

It’s exactly 2 months since the last humpback whale sighting of the 2016/17 “Large Whale Season”, which was from the Hook Head area of Co. Wexford on 8th January. But we shouldn’t have to wait too long for the arrival of the “Big Winged New Englander”, who first showed as early as April 9th off Valentia Isl. Co Kerry in 2016. So we’ve about a month to dust off our optics, and cameras and prepare for their arrival inshore. Can’t wait.

If you are fortunate enough to encounter this species, or any other, in the year ahead, IWDG would really appreciate any fluke images which may help us establish whether your animal is one we recognise or a new individual for Irish waters. Any sightings should as always be reported to us via our website www.iwdg.ie for validation and images to sightings@iwdg.ie

You can track the progress of these humpback whales live here: https://whaletracking.uit.no/

Or you can follow this link http://www.hvalid.no/whale-track-project

A big thanks to Fredrik Broms of the North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue and the team at the Frams Institute for making this data accessible to all.

By Pádraig Whooley, IWDG Sightings Officer